Whoa!Canada

laurel l. russwurm's political musings

Democracy Primer

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What’s So Bad About First Past The Post?

Canadians Deserve Better -Proportional Representation - on Canadian Flag backgroundThis is the third in the Whoa!Canada: Proportional Representation Series

Lets start with the basics.

Sometimes human beings are loners, hermits who shun other humans. But that is rare.

Most human beings are social in nature.  We want to be together, to live in proximity to other humans.  We want to play together and we learn to work together.   In order for people to co-exist, human society requires some sort of boundaries. Rules.

Individual humans start out as part of a family unit.  The family unit fits into human society as part of some kind of tribe. In the modern world collections of tribes have come together to form countries. Each nation establishes its character in the style and form of policy and the framework of rules— laws— set down by its government.

There are two basic paths human beings have taken in our approach government.

Authoritarianism

Autocracy, OligarchyTotalitarianism, Dictatorship, Monarchy, Empire, Fascism… there are many different systems in which the government is all powerful and citizens are powerless.  Such governments might choose to treat citizens benevolently.  Or not.  The government decides and the citizens have no choice but to comply.

British Library illuminated medieval manuscript image of King Phillip Coronation

Democracy

Citizens very often prefer to have a say in their own governance, and this can be achieved with a democratic system of government.

According to political scientist Larry Diamond, it consists of four key elements: (a) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; (b) The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; (c) Protection of the human rights of all citizens, and (d) A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.[3]

The term originates from the Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) “rule of the people”,[4] which was found from δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (krátos) “power” or “rule”, in the 5th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens; the term is an antonym to ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratía) “rule of an elite”.

Wikipedia: Democracy

Democracy draws its power and legitimacy from the support and consent of its citizens.  There are two basic ways of achieving democracy.

Democracy

Direct Democracy

All qualified citizens have the right to represent their own interests in government.  In ancient Greece, each citizen spoke for themselves, making laws by “decree of the plebs” or plebiscite.

plebiscite (noun)

  1. a direct vote of the qualified voters of a state in regard to some important public question.
  2. the vote by which the people of a political unit determine autonomy or affiliation with another country.

In a country where qualified voters number in the millions, the closest we can get to direct democracy is through holding a special plebiscite in which all qualified citizens of a state can vote on an important issue.  As digital technology progresses, there may come a time when all Canadian voters will be both qualified and able to vote electronically on every issue directly. But in today’s world, the closest we come to this is through the difficult and expensive mechanism known as a referendum.

referendum (noun)

  1. the principle or practice of referring measures proposed or passed by a legislative body to the vote of the electorate for approval or rejection.
  2. a measure thus referred.
  3. a vote on such a measure.

Representative Democracy

Since it would be hard to fit millions of people into the Parliament Buildings, like most modern democracies, Canada uses a form of Representative Democracy.  Instead of speaking for ourselves, all qualified citizens have the right to elect a representative we believe will best represent our interests in Parliament.  Although some Canadians wish it were different, referendums are not a feature of the Canadian political system.  In nearly a century and a half, our government has had only three referendums: on prohibition (in 1898), conscription (World War II) and whether to accept the Charlottetown Accord (Constitutional Amendments).  Certainly our choice of voting system was not made through this mechanism.

The procedure by which qualified voters determine who our representative will be is called an electoral system.  The different elements that go together to make up an electoral system determine:

  • the structure of the ballot
  • how votes are cast
  • the way votes are counted, and
  • the criteria needed to win

Although I have been breaking this down for simplicity, there are many ways to design electoral systems.  Most (if not all) of the electoral systems in use around the world are hybrids, as ours here in Canada is.  Our representative democracy is part of a constitutional monarchy; we share England’s monarch. In understanding our options, the most crucial distinction between types of electoral systems comes down to which family they are in.

Representative Democracy can be broken down into two main families: Winner-take-all or Proportional Representation.

Winner-take-all

Just as it sounds, a winner-take-all election is an “all or nothing” proposition.  A election which can only have a single winner necessarily ends up with the single winner getting all the power.

And when elections can only produce a single winner, unless that winner achieved 100% of the votes, there will be losers, too.  The candidate(s) who fails to win loses.  Naturally, the citizens who didn’t vote for winner end up without any representation at all.  They’re losers too.

In Canada we use a winner-take-all single member plurality system better known as First Past The Post.  Although many Canadians believe this system produces majority government it doesn’t.

A majority is defined as 50% + 1.  If there are more than 2 candidates competing for a single seat, with First Past The Post the candidate doesn’t needs to win 50% + 1 ~ s/he just needs to win more votes than any of the others.

Because Canadians aren’t happy with only two political parties, very often we elect MPs with far fewer than 50% of the votes.  In the 2015 Canadian Federal Election, 28.99% of the votes cast were enough to elect Bernard Généreux Member of Parliament for the Montmagny—L’Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup.  That’s a long way from 50% + 1.

But even 50% + 1 can leave as many as 49.9% of voters without representation at all.  That’s why I’ve become a fan of:

Proportional Representation

Vote_iconXProportional Representation isn’t the name of any single electoral system, it is a phrase that describes an electoral outcome where 39% of the vote can’t win 100% of the seats in Parliament.  Proportional Representation ensures 39% of the votes wins 39% of the seats.

Instead of polarizing citizens into winners and losers, a proportional system seeks to elect a government that reflects all citizens, by providing representation to all eligible voters.   More than 90 countries around the world (85% of OECD countries) use some form of Proportional Representation, so there is a great deal of information about how such systems work.

In Canada, over the last decade or so, Ten Canadian Commissions, Assemblies and Reports have recommended proportional representation for Canada.  In addition, Liberal MP Stéphane Dion developed his own P3 system, and later this year the Province of Prince Edward Island will consider adopting another newly devised proportional system, Sean Graham‘s Dual Member Mixed Proportional.

As this series progresses, I’ll look at the different electoral systems that have been or might reasonably be on offer for Canada.  If you aren’t already overwhelmed, I’ve provided links throughout the article so you can find out more detail from the supporting on your own.

And you might be interested in what Craig Scott had to say about Proportional Representation:

The great resource is the grass roots multi-partisan organization that advocates for meaningful Canadian electoral reform: Fair Vote Canada. You can check out their website, but you’ll also find chapters across Canada.  My local is the very active Fair Vote Waterloo Region Chapter.

a horizontal border of red graphic maple leaves

Image Credits:

Medievalart on Tumblr led me to the gorgeous public domain image Detail of a miniature of the coronation ceremonies of Philip (Coronation of King Phillip).   This artwork is part of the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts the British Library generously makes available to the public online.

Found in Wikimedia Commons, Vote icon is an original artwork dedicated to the Public Domain by its creator openclipart.org.

My Families of Electoral Systems mini poster & Democracy Flags are original artwork dedicated to the Public Domain

What’s So Bad About First Past The Post?

Proportional Representation For Canada series so far:

• Proportional Representation for Canada
• What’s so bad about First Past The Post
• Democracy Primer
• Working for Democracy
• The Popular Vote
• Why Don’t We Have PR Already?
• Stability
• Why No Referendum?
• Electoral System Roundup
• When Canadians Learn about PR with CGP Grey
• Entitlement
• Proportional Representation vs. Alternative Vote
• #ERRE #Q Committee
• #ERRE #Q Meetings & Transcripts
• Take The Poll ~ #ERRE #Q
Proportionality #ERRE #Q 
• The Poll’s The Thing 
• DIY Electoral Reform Info Sessions
• What WE Can Do for ERRE
• #ERRE today and Gone Tomorrow (…er, Friday) 
• Redistricting Roulette 
• #ERRE submission Deadline TONIGHT!

 and don’t forget to check out the PR4Canada Resources page!

2 Responses

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  1. Nice work Laurel! I am going to share this with a group we are starting here on Salt Spring Island BC to inform ourselves about voting systems and perhaps start a FVC Chapter. This is a very well put together backgrounder for Voting Systems in Canada.

    Bob MacKie

    March 6, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    • Thanks Bob!

      I’m not following any grand plan, just trying to answer questions I know people have — often because I’ve answered them over and over in comments or on social media. Feel free to pass along any interesting queries that might need answering so I can incorporate them in future posts. 🙂

      Laurel L. Russwurm

      March 6, 2016 at 6:44 pm


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